Court Royal/Chapter XXIII

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XXIII. Reflorescence
CHAPTER XXIII.
REFLORESCENCE.
Court Royal resumed its old appearance. Invitations were sent round, and the whole of South Devon was thrilled with expectation. There was to be a succession of dinner-parties and a splendid ball, which would be attended by the officers from Plymouth and Exeter, and by all the young ladies of position in the neighbourhood. For some years the Duke had given no great entertainments. His health furnished the excuse; now, in spite of his health, Court Royal was to become the scene of festivities on a large scale.

Not only were the gentry to be entertained, but the tenants were to have a dance as well—the usual Christmas dance, greatly magnified. So all classes were pleased, all looked forward with eagerness to the arrival of the Marquess, which was to be the signal for the commencement of the gaieties.

The secret was well kept. None knew of the engagement except the Worthivales, and their lips were sealed. The Duke and Lord Ronald confided nothing to their acquaintances, and yet it was clear to all that something of importance had occasioned this divergence from the routine of retirement. The servants suspected it, and were eager to make Court Royal as splendid and hospitable as it should be. They spared themselves no pains, and they invited all their friends and friends’ most distant acquaintances to partake of the profusion.

The Rigsbys would arrive a few days after the Marquess, from Plymouth, where they had taken a house for the winter. Mr. Rigsby thought Torquay too relaxing, yet the proximity to the sea advisable for his daughter.

Lord and Lady Pomeroy and their daughter, the Earl of Stratton and the Ladies Evelyn and Augusta Burrington, Lord and Lady Dawlish, Sir Henry Hillersdon of Membland and his party, were expected to stay in the Court over the ball. The house was so large, it could contain a regiment. New liveries were ordered for the servants. The paper-hangers, the painters of Kingsbridge were occupied in redecorating several of the rooms. Supplies of every sort were ordered from local grocers, wine-merchants, butchers, fishmongers. The Duke patronised local tradesmen. He disliked co-operative stores. He would rather pay than break a tradition. The carriages were re-lined, new carriages and additional horses purchased. The only person who did not seem to share in the general excitement was Lady Grace. She moved about the house with her usual composure, looked after the flowers, saw that everyone had a sweet and well-assorted bouquet in his room, had a kind word for the servants whom she passed or came on engaged on dusting and polishing, and was interested in the work of the tradesmen, watched them and asked them questions. There was not a person who came within the circle of her influence, and that was everyone to whom she spoke, who would not have sprung into the fire had she desired it.

She was glad that at last her brother was engaged. She had been his close companion for some years, and she felt an ache in her heart that they were now to be parted, but she had never become her brother’s confidant, and she knew that it was well for him to find a sympathetic woman’s soul to which he could open his inmost thoughts. Such a woman she trusted Dulcina Rigsby would prove. She was ready to receive her with love because she was Saltcombe’s ideal, and his ideal must be perfect.

Lucy was not as much with her as usual. Lucy was a ready, intelligent, active manager; she saw to everything. Mrs. Probus was old and slow. At her father’s request, Lucy took on her own shoulders the care of preparing for the visitors and the entertainments. She was pleased to be occupied, she worked restlessly, she was not quiet for one moment in the day. Lady Grace reproached her for doing everything herself, without imposing any task on her.

‘Yours will come when the house is full, and you have to entertain,’ answered Lucy; ‘leave me to make preparations.’ Lucy was the inseparable companion of Lady Grace, her right hand; she loved her with an adoring devotion, received all her thoughts, and devoted herself to ward off all unpleasantnesses from her friend.

Lady Grace was in the room prepared for Miss Rigsby, adjoining which was another for her aunt, Miss Stokes. She was arranging the flowers on the dressing-table, some white jessamine and pink geranium, and a spray of maidenhair fern. She only touched them with the points of her taper fingers, and they fell into place.

‘Do you know, dearest,’ she said to Lucy, ‘I believe that this engagement will make me perfectly happy. It has been a trouble to me that Saltcombe has been here so long without pursuits, squandering his life and his brilliant talents. I have never understood him, though he has stood nearer to me than anyone else. He is melancholy, as though lamenting something, but he has nothing to regret; or as longing for something, but he has made no effort to attain what he longs for. Which is it? That has been a puzzle to me, and it has distressed me to be unable to unriddle it. Now he has found some one after his own heart, and now real life will open to him. He will put forth his energies, he will wake out of a dream, and we shall find that he will make for himself a place in the history of the present time. All our ancestors have been men of note, though one or two noted only as spendthrifts; yet all have taken some part in politics, or as patrons of literature or art and I cannot believe my brother will be content to reckon as a cipher. He seems to me to be one who has either been wrecked when first starting, or as one who has never yet started on the great voyage of adventure—which is life. He cannot have undergone shipwreck—that is impossible, or I should have heard of his disaster; now he is about to start. He has been waiting for the precious lading to fill the empty hold of his heart. Now that is in, the anchor will be weighed, the pennant run to mast-top, the white sails be spread; and with a cheer from all of us who stand on the shore, the gallant vessel will start.’

‘I believe you are right, Grace,’ said Lucy.

‘I do long so to see my future sister-in-law; my heart yearns to love her. Do not be jealous, darling, nothing will ever make me love another as I love you. No one can ever be to me the sweet, strong, enduring friend—the sister that you have been. Do you know, I have been teasing Uncle Ronald about Dulcina. I don’t like the name, do you? He has seen her. When he heard they were at Plymouth, he went down to call on them in Saltcombe’s yacht. I have asked him a thousand questions about her, but I cannot get much out of the General. Men are so funny; they have no descriptive faculty. All he can say is that she is amiable. Well, amiable is one of those unpleasant words which mean nothing—worse than nothing. When you don’t want to say an unkind thing about persons, and you know no good of them, you describe them as amiable. I am sure Uncle Ronald does not mean that. It is only his clumsy man’s way of describing a lady. She has auburn hair and a pale face. I managed to extract that from him, and the father is tall and burnt brown. Uncle Ronald can tell me much more about Mr. Rigsby than he can about Dulcina.’

The Archdeacon and Lady Elizabeth arrived. The excellent curate could be trusted to manage the parish, feed all the fledglings on sop, and the adults on wind. Lord Edward hastened at once to the Duke’s room before he went to his own apartments. The Duke was expecting him, excited, but disguising his excitement. For the last hour he had been looking at his watch every five minutes. The brothers greeted each other with great cordiality.

‘Have I not managed well?’ asked the Archdeacon. ‘Who will deny that I am a man of business?’

‘I am much indebted to you, Edward. Without your help we should never have got Saltcombe away from this place. I hope she is a suitable person.’

‘She has plenty of money,’ answered the Archdeacon, looking down abashed.

‘But, Edward! money is a very small consideration. I am sorry he has not chosen one in his own position. Still—if she is a lady, and one likely to make him happy, I shall not object. What attracted him to her? Is she very beautiful? Fair, I understand. I cannot get much out of Ronald; he is either unobservant or reticent.’

‘Fair, fair of course,’ answered Lord Edward. ‘I should not call her exactly a beauty, but then men’s tastes differ. I really am no judge of women’s faces, I have other things to look at—the Fathers, and the Diocesan Charity accounts.’

‘But you can surely tell me something more than Ronald. I should like particulars. Are her manners easy and polished?’

‘I should not say exactly polished in the old acceptation of the word. Easy they are, I suppose. She makes herself at home in your house at once, and is rather exacting. But then her father spoils her. She turns him round her finger. It is really a study to see how she manages him. That is good; she will exert herself to direct Saltcombe, and make something of him.’

‘I hope so,’ said the Duke.

‘I am sure of it. I am sanguine that the marriage will be a happy one.’

‘I have seen little of Saltcombe since he returned the day before yesterday. He is shy, as you may understand, of speaking on such a topic to me. He always was a reserved man, and now his reserve is intensified.’

‘I will go and see him myself,’ said Lord Edward. ‘I suppose the Rigsbys will be here to-day.’

‘I expect them by the next train. They will be here for dinner. We have invited no one for to-day, but every other day of their visit is provided for.’

The Archdeacon hurried to his nephew’s apartments. He was a man of business, and before he attended to himself he was determined to have everyone else in order. He found Lord Saltcombe by himself in his sitting-room, pretending to read. He shook him warmly by the hand. ‘Saltcombe,’ he said, ‘remember what is expected of you. I have done all that I can, so has Elizabeth. Upon my word I believe the girl is in love with you, over head and ears. Now, for heaven’s sake, do not spoil everything by faintheartedness at the last. Keep your spirits up. Show a good face before your father. There is a great deal in the girl. It only wants drawing out. Her father has spoiled her, and her natural excellence is a little obscured, that is all. I like her, and think she will make a first-rate wife.’ Lord Edward saw everything in rosy light.

A couple of hours later the carriages arrived. Two had been sent to Kingsbridge Road station. Mr. Rigsby, his daughter, and Miss Stokes were in the first, a fine new carriage with splendid appointments; Miss Rigsby’s maid alone in the second with the parcels, and the boxes on the roof. Mr. Rigsby dispensed with a valet.

The evening was fine, the sun cast his last golden rays over the house, and the park looked its best to greet its future mistress.

Lady Grace and Lucy came to the entrance hall; Lord Edward and the Marquess were there as well, to receive the guests. Dulcina looked about her with surprise and admiration which lent vivacity to her face; unfortunately the setting sun sent its saffron rays over her; her complexion was naturally pasty: in the sunlight she looked sallow. Lucy Worthivale stood back, unnoticed, watching Dulcina attentively. Then she hastened to Miss Stokes, and offered to relieve her of some of her wraps.

Dulcina wore a tall hat, boat-shaped, with a great dancing plume in it. She could not have chosen a head-dress less suitable to her style. Colour came into Lady Grace’s cheeks for a moment when she met and saw her future sister-in-law for the first time, but not a muscle of her features moved. She greeted her with gentle cordiality that won Dulcina’s confidence immediately. The Marquess turned pale when he saw the young lady in her hideous hat, standing in the yellow blaze, looking plain, almost vulgar, but he speedily recovered himself and behaved with courtesy and geniality.

‘Upon my word!’ exclaimed Mr. Rigsby, looking round, ‘what a place you have! Why, you English nobles are princes indeed.’

Mr. Rigsby and his daughter were received by the Duke in the drawing-room; the audience was very short. Dulcina was carried off almost before the Duke could make out what she was like, and conveyed by Lady Grace and Lucy to her apartments. She looked about her eagerly; on the stairs, in the corridors; she said little, she was oppressed by the stateliness and splendour about her, to which she was wholly unaccustomed, brought up in a wooden bungalow in the coffee plantations of Ceylon, far from society and from settled habitations.

When she had been taken to her rooms the Marquess went to his own. He was followed by Beavis, who had kept in the background. He had observed Miss Rigsby as attentively as had his sister. He was unnoticed, and able to study her unrestrainedly. From his love for Lord Saltcombe, and because he had himself urged him to this engagement, he was eager to judge favourably of Dulcina; but in spite of this prepossession he was unfavourably impressed. It was not merely her complexion and tasteless dress which displeased his critical eye. He thought he saw in her a selfish, querulous spirit, and a lack of womanly tenderness. The geniality of her father, his eagerness to forestall her wishes, to screen her from all vexations, met with no recognition, were accepted as a right, and awoke no gratitude.

When he came into Lord Saltcombe’s room he found his friend in the arm-chair by the fire, his head resting in his hand, seeming pale and dispirited. The Marquess looked up, and with a faint smile said, ‘Well, old fellow, come to congratulate me? Satisfied with what you have done? Now, tell me, on your honour, your opinion of ma fiancée.’

Beavis was confused. He felt some self-reproach. He could not expect that his friend would find happiness at the side of such a dry stick as Dulcina.

‘What do you think of her?’ asked Lord Saltcombe again.

‘I have had only a glimpse. I have not as yet exchanged a word with her.’

‘Tell me frankly, are you struck with her?’

‘I will speak to you frankly. She is not bad looking at all. We are so accustomed here to see lovely complexions, that one spoilt by the sun of the south seems to us strange. She has a profusion of warm-coloured hair and good teeth!’

‘This is not fair, Beavis. You are cataloguing what I am competent to catalogue myself. She has a nose, and eyes, and fingers and feet. The latter small, the ankles good.’

‘What do you want?’

‘What do you think of her character?’

‘Now you are unreasonable with me, Saltcombe. I have seen her for a few moments only, and you demand what you have no right to expect, and what would be unfair to her. I will tell you more after I have had a talk with her.’

‘You are evading my question. I want your first impressions.’

‘Then you shall have them. I think she has been spoiled. What has been spoiled it will be your place to restore. What lies below the surface, what has been crippled and what stunted by mismanagement, I cannot tell. I never will believe in any woman being other than an angel.’

‘Is it possible to make good what is broken?’

‘There are crippled hearts as well as crippled limbs. Miss Rigsby is young: kindness and firmness may put the crippled heart to rights; it is only warped by having been allowed to twist as it liked, unrestrained.’

‘Thank you, Beavis. You set me a task. You are determined to make me work against my will. I am marrying without love, without regard even, because it is a family necessity. Perhaps the union will turn out well in spite of its being loveless. The French system of mariage de convenance is not so bad as novelists would have us suppose, and the love matches these misleaders of youth extol are generally disastrous. Young folks idealise each other, and their marriage is a miserable disenchantment. Where two take each other without any expectation of finding any treasure, every discovery of a good quality, every peaceful pleasure in marriage, comes on them as a surprise, and they are delighted in the end to find each other worth having.’

The Marquess laughed, but constrainedly. Beavis looked at him sadly, sympathetically. He was afraid to speak. He doubted what to say.

Mr. Rigsby gave his key to a manservant, who unpacked his portmanteau for him. He had been accustomed to attend on himself, and was impatient of having this taken from him. He stood with his hands in his pockets, looking on. Then he went to his daughter’s room, tapped, and walked in.

‘Well, Dullie, what do you think of this? Is not the house magnificent? Did you ever see such livery before, and such a lot of it? Buff and scarlet, red plush breeches—’

‘Really, James,’ exclaimed Miss Stokes, ‘would you—would you be more constrained in tongue before ladies?’

‘Lord bless me!’ exclaimed the old planter, ‘what is wrong? If they wear ’em, mayn’t one speak of them?’

‘Papa!’ cried Dalcina, ‘you must observe the decencies of speech, if not before me, before the great folks here.’

‘Great folks,’ said Mr. Rigsby; ‘I believe you, Dullie. They are great folks indeed! Tell me, now, is not everything here magnificent?’

‘Oh, all is very nice.’

‘Nice! Superb! You do not employ proper expressions. You never saw the like in your wildest dreams, because the like is not to be found out of old England.’

‘I suppose there are the courts of the native princes in India——

‘Native fiddlesticks!’ exclaimed Mr. Rigsby.

‘Really, really, James,’ interposed Miss Stokes, ‘would you allow my niece to finish her sentences? She cannot endure interruptions: you shake her nerves. Moreover, the exprestion is burlesque and improper.’

‘I was only about to remark,’ said the abashed Rigsby, ‘that Dulcina has seen no native princes. There are none in Ceylon, and she has not been on a visit to Maharajas on the continent.’

‘If she has not, she has read of their palaces and heard of their state.’

‘They are nothing to the mansions of our nobility. And, Dullie, my dear, the beauty is that you will one day be mistress here. Listen! Don’t it sound well, Dulcina, Duchess of Kingsbridge? Upon my word, I will have you painted in a ducal coronet and red velvet mantle turned up with ermine. My dear, look round here on everything as your own. The old cock can’t last long.’

‘What old cock, papa?’

‘I mean the Duke.’

‘Really, James, really!’ exclaimed Miss Stokes.